PITTSFIELD >> In pursuit of its "grand vision" to create the Berkshire High Road, an extensive trail system from the Vermont border to the Connecticut line, the Berkshire Natural Resources Council is in the final stages of a quietly launched $5 million fundraising campaign.
The goal is to fill in "missing pieces" of what BNRC President Tad Ames described as a patchwork of conserved lands. If successful, he said in an interview, the result some 20 years down the road would be about 200 miles of walking and hiking trails, including east-west connections, that would link many or even all of the county's 32 communities.
"It's a grand vision, but it's within reach," he said, noting that donors have already pledged $4.25 million during the "quiet phase" of the campaign.
Ames hopes to complete the fundraising effort by the end of this year or in 2017 to celebrate the council's 50th anniversary. "We have been extremely fortunate, people have been generous, but the last 20 percent is the toughest part," he said.
The project went public last June when Ames pitched the South Yokun Ridge Trail, a key segment of the project, to the Stockbridge Select Board. The council sought approval for a hiking trail from Lake Averic, the town reservoir, to Olivia's Overlook in Richmond, a key BNRC location.
But in July, the Stockbridge Sewer and Water Commission rejected the idea over concern that hikers could wander off the trail into sensitive wetlands bordering the reservoir.
"We were disappointed but we accept it and we're looking at other alternatives," Ames said on Friday.
He has described the High Road trail network, passing through conserved land, woodlands and private property through easements by owners, as an economic development project aimed at the county's thriving hospitality industry — "a great draw, a calling card for Berkshire County, a reason that people will want to come here and stay here."
"We need to bring conservation and community together," Ames said. "People love the Berkshires' beauty, but it can be challenging to get out and experience it."
If the project succeeds, he explained, the High Road would offer easy half-hour walks or, at the other extreme, a full week's hiking experience through the county.
The BNRC has been working mostly behind the scenes on the plan since 2013.
However, Ames pointed out that 80 percent of protected land for the trail network already has been assembled. The next step is to secure conservation agreements and easements for the remaining segments, linking landmarks and towns.
"It won't happen overnight," he said. "But with patience and the capacity to create and seize opportunities, the High Road is realistic and attainable."
According to Ames, he and colleagues at BNRC have briefed state agencies, statewide nonprofits and local land trusts in an effort to gather feedback and create an "ongoing, hugely collaborative project by finding common ground."
Conceding that walking trails don't belong everywhere, Ames said the council still envisions a "100 percent walkable Berkshires from Sandisfield to Williamstown with options to stop at every interesting and refreshing place along the way."
The nonprofit land conservation organization, founded in 1967, already protects more than 21,000 acres of conserved land, including 10,000 acres that it owns. Already, more than 50 miles of trails from North Adams to Sandisfield are managed by the BNRC.
All BNRC land is open to the public for passive — meaning nonmotorized — recreation ranging from hiking to fishing, hunting, bird-watching and picnicking.
But the High Road trails would be limited to walkers and hikers, Ames said.
The project was endorsed over the summer by Rob Murray, president of the Lenox Chamber of Commerce, who called it a "huge asset" unique to the Berkshires.
He predicted the trail network would be a "quality of life improvement" for residents and an attraction that would expand recreational tourism, especially in the fall and spring shoulder seasons.
Ames depicted the High Road as a sister of the Appalachian Trail, though lacking extended stretches of pure wilderness.
"We want to see a healthy economy and environment working together now and forever," he stated. "The High Road is a pathway to that vision."
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.